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DAVOS, Switzerland – If there is one place bankers should be able to let down their guard a little, you would think it would be at the World Economic Forum in Davos, an exclusive gathering of 2,500 of the globe's financial and corporate elite.
Yet even here top banking executives found themselves on the defensive. It's a reflection of how big banks — blamed by some politicians and the public for the 2007 financial crisis and the resulting Great Recession — are still grappling with pressure from recent scandals and moves toward increasingly complex regulation.
During a panel discussion on global finance at the forum, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon criticized the "huge misinformation" about the risks actually posed by banks.
He and other top bankers at the discussion, including UBS chairman Axel Weber, found themselves stressing that that banks play an essential role in making economies grow — by lending to businesses so they can invest and expand.
"Banks continue to lend and grow and expand, finance is a critical part of the how the economy is run," he said said at an all-star panel where he was challenged both by a top International Monetary Fund official and a hedge fund manager, whose firm is a client of Dimon's bank.
"Everyone I know is trying to do a very good job for their clients." Dimon
There have been plenty of negative headlines and investigations over the last year that show banking in a far harsher light: Several top banks are under investigation for rigging key interest rates, HSBC has been fined for allowing money-laundering and Standard Chartered has been penalized for dealing with Iran. Even Dimon's own bank has suffered an embarrassing $6 billion trading loss on complex derivatives.
All of which has only given ammunition to the critics who say banks are too loosely regulated, too unethical and still so large that their collapse would threaten the economy.
Governments and regulators have moved to clamp down on banks and their risky practices since 2007. In the United States, legislation known as Dodd-Frank seeks to avoid taxpayer-funded bailouts of banks by barring them from engaging in risky trading on their own account. The European Union is considering proposals to have banks separate their riskier investment banking operations from the rest of their business. Meanwhile, the British government is moving toward a different proposal to require banks to "ring-fence" their retail banking within their organization.
Beyond that, banks are also being required to hold more financial padding against possible losses through an international agreement known as Basel III.
However, the push to regulate leaves many dissatisfied. Critics of the banking industry claim that some of the new measures — such as requirements to hold capital buffers against losses — were in fact around ahead of the 2007 crisis but were ineffective as banks found ways around them.
Banks themselves agree that the capital measures are needed, but there are concerned that, because these new rules are often being imposed on a national or regional basis, they can overlap for banks that do business in more than one country. And there is no one global standard that would level the playing field, and prevent banks from simply moving their operations to places that allowed high-risk practices.
Plus the increased costs involved in following the new rules will hit profits and could even shrink the availability of credit.
To add to the mix, the Basel III rules, which have been accepted by both bank critics and bankers, will not come into effect until 2019.
That sense of dissatisfaction about the state of banks and the attempts to regulate them burst through during the Davos global finance panel.
Min Zhu, the deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said the banking industry was "still too big" compared to the size of the global economy. Min also warned that other financial organizations, such as hedge funds, are playing a too-large, too-little regulated role known as "shadow banking" where risky practices that could cause a crisis remain beyond a regulator's reach.
"All the debate going on, and the financial sector has not changed very much. We're not safer yet. Five years on, we are still debating whether we have too much or too little regulation," he said.
"I would say the financial sector has a long way to go."
Axel Weber, chairman of Swiss bank UBS and former head of Germany's central bank, added that global regulators "have clearly made up their minds that banks are too big."
Dimon complained about "huge misinformation" about the risks posed by banks and that regulators were casting their net too wide, with too many agencies involved.
"We're trying to do too much too fast," he said. "Everyone thinks it was one thing that sank the system."
One skeptic of capital requirements is Edward J. Kane, a professor of finance at Boston College. He believes that big banks would likely find a way to circumvent them, as they did before the crisis by moving risk to off-balance sheet entities, for example — and still had the power to shape regulation in their interests.
"We were told before the crisis that capital requirements on banks would be the medicine that would prevent us from having crises, but they failed," he told The Associated Press.
A better way to discourage excessive risk-taking, Kane proposes, would be to charge banks a simple premium that reflects what the taxpayer would have to pay in case the bank needs to be bailed out.
"There will always be financial crises," he said. "Regulators are always outgunned, outcoached and playing from behind. What we can try to do is control the incentives and make the crises less deep."
Christina Rexrode in New York contributed to this article.